Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders
Allen & Unwin (Faber & Faber) 2015. ISBN 9780571310951
(Age: 10+) Highly recommended. World War One, War, Comic fantasy. Sequel to Five Children and It by E. Nesbit. When E Nesbitt's Five Children and It was published in 1902, it was widely acclaimed. Two sequels soon followed, The phoenix and the carpet, and The story of the amulet, tracing the adventures of the five children and their friend, the last sand fairy on earth, the Psammead. Parents are rarely seen, an old nurse watches over them, and a dinner gong calls them for tea, recalling a time where children were left to their own devices, a time for picnics and baskets of food, of private schools and governesses, of parents who were mysteriously absent for a period of time, allowing the children even more freedom.
This sequel, a further story about the five children set ten years later when war threatens their lives, has their old companion reappear. He is thousands of years old, and knows what will happen to them all. He can grant wishes, although his powers are strangely diminished, but he is there to farewell Cyril as he heads off for war on the Western Front.
I found I kept reading this with a smile on my face as the children and Sammy wriggled their way into my consciousness. Sammy is a wonderful character funny, forthright and assertive, his needs overriding the children's as as he makes continuous demands.
Like ET, the Psanamead simply wants to get home, so the children take him to the British Museum to see if he recognises any of the ancient exhibits. In the Sumerian room are images that look just like him, and they bump into Ernie, a soldier who loves ancient things. Surprisingly they are all friends of the professor, Jimmy and go to his house where they plan to help Sammy.
Like a detective story, the children search for Sammy's real home, and if the signs are to be believed, he must learn things about himself before he can return. In wishing for things, the children are transported to various times and locations: the Kaiser in 1939, Cyril in the trenches during the war, all designed to give the readers some insight into war and its aftermath, while being a model for Sammy to truly regret his past actions and feel compassion as they do.
The intriguing story will give avid readers an introduction to the stories of the Great War, showing how people were involved on all fronts and enlist their sympathies as they see the impact of war upon the family. Robert is blinded, Ernie loses his leg, friends are killed in action, Jane wants to be a doctor, the parents are shocked when Anthea wants to marry someone outside their circle, and so on, each designed to reflect the impact of the war on attitudes and society of the time, while questioning the need for war.
Comic fantasy for middle to upper primary, this is a wonderful read a loud, charting the progress of Sammy from a ruthless god and ruler of the ancient world to someone who empathises with those around him. The many incidents serve as exemplars for the impact of war on the community and would serve as a wonderful introduction to the theme of war in class. The plaque outside one of the cemeteries, Now Heaven is by the young invaded, could serve as a telling sub title for this engrossing story and an introduction to the work done in class.
Editor's note: This has won the 2014 Costa Children's Book Award.